The head of Utah's largest electric utility says that the state's main source of electrical power in the near future will shift from coal to natural gas.

Speaking during a panel discussion Thursday at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, Rocky Mountain Power President Richard Walje said that every coal plant that is now being considered in Utah "is under extreme challenge" because of environmental concerns.

"I'm not so sure you're going to see a coal plant built, or maybe just a few, though not near enough to meet the requirement for today's energy users," he said.

Over time, the state will need to develop other energy sources — such as nuclear, clean coal and renewable sources like wind and solar — and increase conservation and efficiencies in order to meet Utah's ever-growing energy demand.

"We lived off excess capacity from right after the Arab oil embargo up until the last five years," he said. "Now, all of that excess capacity is gone, and we continue to grow robustly as a society."

Meeting the state's "insatiable" demand for electricity will require a large capital investment, Walje said.

One of the ways touted by the panel to increase energy capacity was to improve efficiency.

Utah now has some of the most affordable electricity rates in the nation, making it difficult for people to feel the need to conserve, Walje said. The Energy Information Administration predicted a 50 percent growth in demand nationwide by 2030. Utah's demand increases about 2.5 percent annually and peak demand increases 5 percent each year.

Sarah Wright, executive director of Utah Clean Energy, said getting users to change their mindsets and learn to consider efficiency and conservation as resources, just like traditional sources like coal, could help significantly in meeting future power demand.

"The utility and individuals should be implementing it," she said. "It would great if you could put together incentives and education so that when consumers go to buy a home, they know what questions to ask to find out how energy-efficient a property is."

Raul Deju, president of EnergySolutions, said one of the most important, yet less talked about issues for long-term power generation is the ability to transmit that energy effectively. "Whether it's wind or nuclear or solar, we need more distribution," he said.

Utah and the rest of the country would have to "look at a portfolio of options," including renewable sources, nuclear power and clean coal to meet future energy needs, he said.

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